Chicago Blackhawks

What you need to know about AFCNFC East

What you need to know about AFCNFC East

AFC East - What you need to know

New England Patriots (13-3, 513 Points For, lost in Super Bowl): While all three of Tom Brady's titles came in the first half of his career, it's the second act that's been most impressive. He was arguably a game-manager for two of his titles, but he's been the driver of this offense since 2007, grabbing two MVPs along the way (and, as it turns out, a pair of Super Bowl losses). The gravy train should continue in 2012, with well-respected OC Josh McDaniels calling the shots and Brandon Lloyd imported to run deep routes. Opponents are going to have nightmares trying to figure how they cover Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker on all passing downs. Gronkowski's 18 touchdowns don't seem repeatable, but his overunder is probably 11.5 or so. He's a safe Top 12-15 pick, and worth considering late in the first round if you miss out on your preferred targets. Stevan Ridley is the most exciting running back on the roster but be careful with the price tag; the Patriots love backfield platoons, so Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are unlikely to disappear. The Patriots haven't had a star running back since the Corey Dillon days.

New York Jets (8-8, 377 PF):  Although Mark Sanchez collected 32 total touchdowns last year, the New York organization insists on giving him the McKayla Maroney "not impressed" treatment. The club added Tim Tebow in the spring - a gigantic distraction, not to mention a rep-eater in practice - but didn't make major improvements to the skill talent. And the offensive line could be somewhat overrated as well, though the demotion of RT Wayne Turner is a step in the right direction. Santonio Holmes is desperately needed to be the team's No. 1 target, but he's a mercurial type who already has a bunch of nagging summer injuries (back, hamstring, ribs). Rookie Stephen Hill might be good enough to play immediately, so put him on your deep-sleeper list. Shonn Greene hasn't turned into a difference-making back, though the Jets will continue to feed him 15-18 touches in most weeks. At least there's no one special pushing him. If the Jets are going to be a contender in 2012, it will be on the heels of its strong defense. Any opposing No. 1 receiver is a risky play the moment he matches up with shutdown CB Darrelle Revis.  

Buffalo Bills (6-10, 372 PF): The Bills were the NFL's darlings for about one-third of 2011, but injuries to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and running back Fred Jackson wrecked the story around midseason. Everyone is healthy and happy this summer, though, and head coach Chan Gailey is having fun with his creative spread packages. Although Jackson will cede some snaps to third-year runner C.J. Spiller, he's still the fulcrum of the offense and a solid Top 40 selection for fantasy. Stevie Johnson belongs in your Top 20 at wide receiver, despite a focus drop here and there. What would really make this offense sing is a difference maker opposite Johnson; perhaps tight end Scott Chandler will finally see a bump in targets. Buffalo probably won't get into the playoffs, but this could be a very entertaining 8-8 club.

Miami Dolphins (6-10, 329 PF): Give major props to HBO for its Hard Knocks series. The network has somehow made this Dolphins team seem interesting and worth watching. Rookie Ryan Tannenhill knows Mike Sherman's offense well - they were together at Texas A&M - but the kid is also a converted wideout with limited QB experience. Good luck making that work right away. The Miami wideouts are far and away the weakest group in the AFC, and there's no one we'd bother selecting in a standard 10-team league. Maybe Davone Bess crawls his way to 65 receptions, if that matters to you. The backfield does offer two players worth knowing, however: Reggie Bush is an unsexy-but-steady pick, especially in PPR leagues given that he can catch the ball and play in spread formations. And second-year runner Daniel Thomas is a late-round lottery ticket worth considering, a post-hype pick if you will. But this team is going to struggle to score all season, and seems destined for a last-place finish in the division.

NFC East - What you need to know

New York Giants (9-7, 394 Points For, won Super Bowl): Eli Manning's pass attempts have risen for three straight years and he's coming off an 8.4 YPA, best of his career. Forget balance in New York, this is Manning's team now, a pass-first scheme. Hakeem Nicks is recovering quickly from his foot injury - don't worry about picking him in the Top 3-4 rounds - and Victor Cruz looks capable of playing outside the formation as well as he does in the slot. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw is one of the toughest backs in the league, but the laundry list of injuries will take a tax eventually. The Giants selected RB David Wilson in the first round, looking to give Bradshaw a caddy. Holdover D.J. Ware has some skills, too. Bottom line, when you look at Big Blue for fantasy purposes, focus on the passing game. Manning, Nicks and Cruz have been surprisingly affordable in most standard leagues this month.

Philadelphia Eagles (8-8, 396 PF): The Eagles looked like a sneaky breakout pick a couple of months ago, given that they won their last four games last year and don't have gigantic public pressure entering 2012. But if Michael Vick's thumb and rib injuries aren't fully healed by opening day, all bets are off. Vick only scored one rushing touchdown last year after nine the previous campaign; split the difference and you still get a nice fantasy kickback. But expecting a full season from him is a fool's errand; he's done it once in nine pro seasons. LeSean McCoy is an elite running back and worthy of a Top 3 overall pick, though his best game comes as a counter-punch to Vick (scrambling quarterbacks create wide defenses and rushing lanes). Jeremy Maclin is the receiver you want in Philly, more reliable than explosive-but-combustible DeSean Jackson.

Dallas Cowboys (8-8, 369 PF): Under most circumstances we'd be on board with Tony Romo, but everything on this offense seems to be crumbling around him. Jason Witten has a spleen injury (push him out of the Top 10 at tight end), Miles Austin's hamstrings are barking, and Dez Bryant has been a high-maintenance act his entire career. The Dallas offensive line also looks like a hot mess, which limits the buzz for second-year back DeMarco Murray. The Pokes have finally moved on from Felix Jones; he's a secondary piece at most, and isn't even guaranteed to make the team. The Cowboys fantasy defense has some sleeper value, given the presence of sack-master DeMarco Ware.

Washington Redskins (5-11, 288 PF): Ah, the poor Redskins. Even when they do something right, it turns into a rocky road. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin certainly appears ready to play right away, though Kirk Cousins is also showing a strong camp and has his supporters as well. The money invested in Griffin will secure him the gig, and it's the right choice; don't look for a Cam Newton breakout, but he can be a Top 12-15 fantasy QB right away. The receiving group is surprisingly deep, with Pierre Garcon coming over to team with experienced Santana Moss and intriguing Leonard Hankerson. Tight end Fred Davis is an intermediate threat as well. But forget the backfield, where Mike Shanahan can't be trusted (and several options loom). Roy Helu still looks like the best talent of the lot, but the club seems taken by Evan Royster right now, and Alfred Morris and Tim Hightower complicate the situation.

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

It’s preseason: you don’t need a lot of build-up. Let’s just delve right in, shall we?

1. Lots of shots, but…

The same Joonas Korpisalo that the Blackhawks’ youngsters scored five goals against on Tuesday was on top of his game on Saturday. The Blackhawks peppered him with 54 shots but only two got through, and the second was a 6-on-4 power-play goal in the final two minutes.

“I thought we could have gotten a little more traffic in front of him," Nick Schmaltz said. "I thought we were playing along the outside. I mean we had some great looks. He made some big saves. Some nights you get the bounces and some nights you don’t.”

2. Bérubé’s Blackhawks debut.

Jean-François Bérubé had a tough sequence early in the second period, when he gave up two goals in a 28-second span. This was against a Columbus team that didn’t send many of their top players. He also didn’t see a ton of action in this one; the Blue Jackets fired just 21 shots his way.

3. Growing pains.

Alex DeBrincat had his up and down moments on Saturday night. His turnover led to Columbus’ first goal, he took a slashing penalty and he fought the puck quite a bit. You still saw glimpses of that skill, though, especially with his quick release. Hey, he’s a 19-year-old guy getting his first taste of the NHL. Nights like this are going to happen.

“We all make mistakes,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “You gotta be safe in certain areas and you learn from that.”

4. Slash-o-meter.

Four more were called on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if that number starts dwindling sooner rather than later, though, because the edict has apparently changed already. Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported earlier on Saturday that the league told officials to ease up on slashing and faceoff violations. But we all figure that’s going to happen once the regular season begins anyway, right?

5. Notre Dame bound.

The destination is familiar but the Blackhawks threw it into their second week of camp this season. It’ll be bonding time for the Blackhawks, who will send a smaller group for several practices there this week. Quenneville figures it’ll be a productive time. “We’ll get some bonding in, play golf together, have a nice outing, couple of road games and a nice campus.”

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

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USA TODAY

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

Nick Schmaltz seemed to be everywhere the puck was on Saturday night. Great pursuit of the puck, great passes to Patrick Kane or Alex DeBrincat and an all-around confidence that’s becoming more apparent by the game.

So has coach Joel Quenneville seen what he’s needed to from Schmaltz at second-line center?

“And more.”

It’s been a pretty impressive showing for Schmaltz this month. The 21-year-old has played in all three of the Blackhawks’ preseason games and keeps getting better in each one. The uncertainty Schmaltz understandably showed as a rookie is gone; the NHL game no longer feels uncomfortable.

“I feel like the game’s slowing down for me, just seeing plays,” Schmaltz said. “I know what I’m doing with the puck before I get it. It feels good and just trying to get better every day.”

Schmaltz and his fellow second liners didn’t connect for goals in the Blackhawks 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The three combined for 12 of the Blackhawks’ 54 shots on goal – Kane and DeBrincat each had five – and the chemistry continues to build between the three.

Jonathan Toews talked on Saturday morning of how much more relaxed Schmaltz looks with the puck now, and that was evident again later that night.

“He’s really starting to get comfortable physically at this level,” Toews said. “He thinks the game so well, puts himself in good spots, much like Kaner where he can skate with the puck and use his speed. He has his head up so he backs guys off. Those two were making great plays tonight and Brinksy was fitting in well. They couldn’t buy a goal but Schmaltzy’s getting better and better, and you’re’ seeing that calm poise that he has really come out the more he gets comfortable.”

Schmaltz was likely getting a second-line audition in some capacity this fall; the original thought was at left wing in the wake of Artemi Panarin’s trade. But Schmaltz has always felt at his best at center. He’s showing that. And more.

“It’s always fun to play no matter if it’s preseason or regular season," he said. "I’m always happy to play, especially when you’re playing with great players. I feel like I’m more comfortable in the middle, able to use my speed a little bit more, create more offense that way.

"I think it’s going well. Wherever I end up, I’ll be happy.”